Police Trainer Reflects on His Year in Iraq

Mike Heidingsfield spent 13 months in Iraq as the top civilian commander in charge of training Iraqi police. He tells Linda Werteimer that Iraqi police are now a more visible presence, but that makes them targets for insurgents, too.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Over the past year, we've been talking to Mike Heidingsfield in Iraq. He was the top civilian commander in charge of training Iraqi police in Baghdad and Mosul and in neighboring Jordan. Mr. Heidingsfield had a 13-month contract with DynCorp International to work in Iraq. He's been on a leave of absence from his regular job as head of the Memphis Crime Commission. Now he's home for good. He joins us by phone from Nashville, Tennessee.

Mike Heidingsfield, welcome home.

Mr. MIKE HEIDINGSFIELD (Former Civilian Commander, Iraq): Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

WERTHEIMER: You were in Iraq for 13 months and three elections. This has been a time of terrific violence and constant danger for you and for your trainers and cadets, right up to your going-away party, I understand. Can you tell us what happened?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: Sure. The day before I left the country, two suicide bombers walked into the Baghdad police academy and detonated and killed 47 of our students. And then after I'd just gotten back to the United States, I found out that two of my men were killed by an IED, one of whom had driven me for the better part of the year, every day.

WERTHEIMER: What about the police? How would you compare the strength of the Iraqi police today to a year ago when you first started working there?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: When I first got to Iraq in the fall of 2004, you didn't see the Iraqi police very prominently to begin with, and when you did, they wore masks to disguise who they were. Today, they're very prominent, they're a very robust presence in terms of checkpoints and do not conceal their identities anymore. So that's kind of one of the most dramatic performance measurements that I use.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think it's more dangerous or less dangerous to be an Iraqi policeman now?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: That's an interesting question. I think it actually may be more dangerous because when they were not a very significant presence, it also made them not a very significant target. Today, they and the Iraqi army and the Iraqi national guard represent kind of the tip of the spear for the emerging government. So I think the fact that they're a much more heightened target makes it more dangerous for them, frankly.

WERTHEIMER: When you think about the experience you had there, is there anything that you wish you had known going in?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: I wish I had had a better appreciation for the state of the country of Iraq, which is--really was a shambles when I got there. And even today, the infrastructure is just extraordinarily fragile. And I don't think I appreciated that. It certainly was a much larger fundamental challenge than I thought it was going to be.

WERTHEIMER: Now you've obviously had a number of close calls. Your hotel was bombed, you slept, I understand, with a machine gun under the bed. You must feel lucky to be alive.

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: I do. I had five personal encounters with attacks. The hotel complex that I was housed in was bombed three times. I was there all three times, twice in bed when my windows blew in and the third time in the lobby when the explosion blew in the lobby's windows. I have been extraordinarily fortunate compared to many others. I lost 12 men and one woman in the course of my 13 months there, so I'm blessed compared to them, obviously.

WERTHEIMER: Do you feel the experience of all this violence and loss has changed you?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: Oh, there's no question. I--it has sobered me in a way that is probably inexplicable to other people, and it kind of sears an imprint on both your mind and your heart that you will never shed. I'm just really trying to focus on the transition back to becoming a normal person again.

WERTHEIMER: Is that going to be tough to do?

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: Yes, I think it's going to be very difficult.

WERTHEIMER: Mike Heidingsfield has been training Iraqi police on a State Department contract for the past year. He spoke to us from Nashville on his way home.

Mike, thanks very much.

Mr. HEIDINGSFIELD: It's my pleasure. Thank you for asking me to contribute.

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